Obituaries: don’t make them a dead end

I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure.
— Clarence Darrow

Obituaries ought to be pleasurable reading, and too often people are literally buried with a perfunctory paragraph. Of the many forms of writing, obituaries hardly get prominence, much less taught in classes, but a lively obit can be as great as any other kind of writing.

People, probably in books more than life, sometimes imagine what will be written about them after they pass away. However, obituaries are rarely written for the dead person they commemorate and as writing they often receive as much attention and care as advertisements for old cars. The typical obit puts together the facts of someone’s life, birth location and time, death location and time, vocation in between the two, and a note about whom they leave behind. It serves as a community notice and has a sentimental significance to those noted ones left behind.

Newspaper writers rarely aspire to the obituaries column, and rarely do they seem to devote much significance to it. Some come to love it and look forward to deaths with, forgive them, glee. Prominent individuals receive a longer, more carefully thought out retrospectives in papers across the world. Yet if the website shows anything, it’s that the vast amount of obituaries are hasty factual notices. This is why it is all the more interesting when you come across a great obituary.

A great obituary makes the person known to you as a lifelong friend, and becomes as affecting and interesting as the person was. The New York Times does a good job of suggesting why a person is historically relevant to learn about and mourn. The L.A. Times makes its obituaries a little more compelling with a little more kick, but by far the best obituaries being written today are in the pages of The Economist magazine.

The Economist prints one obituary, or posthumous profile, per monthly edition, and its choice of person is often surprising and always rewarding. It literally makes the dead come alive, with a verve that surprises and delights. The Economist doesn’t give bylines, but its obituaries are currently written by the former editor Anne Roe. She is the co-author, with Keith Colquhoun, of The Economist Book of Obituaries. Of course, The Economist doesn’t serve as a community notice with funeral details. Instead, it explains why and how the person led a fascinating life. The profiles range from that of H.M., a man without a memory, to Boris Fyodorov, a Russian reformer who is examined through his passion for English churches. This unexpected angle provides an unexpected familiarity and insight into the character of the person.

In this NPR interview, Wroe says she likes to “get to the point” right away, and “the point may not be the one we first think of.” Another point in favor of Economist obituaries is that they are more than recitations of facts; they take a decided view of an individual and his achievements, which makes for better reading.

Morbid? Perhaps, yet who knew obituaries could be such great reading? Wroe says in the interview that “it seems to me like an opportunity to get into dozens of very interesting lives and I find it endlessly fascinating, not in the least morbid. In fact, we have a tradition in England of rather irreverent and interesting obituaries ….” Perhaps we Americans are too stiff about stiffs. A great and lively obituary is the best thing you could hope for after your death. As commemoration of the dead, an obit is one of the most noble projects for a writer.

(Originally published December 21, 2008 in Blogcritics Magazine.)

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